Just as the sun was setting upon that melancholy night I saw the lonely figur_f the Indian upon the vast plain beneath me, and I watched him, our one fain_ope of salvation, until he disappeared in the rising mists of evening whic_ay, rose-tinted from the setting sun, between the far-off river and me.
It was quite dark when I at last turned back to our stricken camp, and my las_ision as I went was the red gleam of Zambo's fire, the one point of light i_he wide world below, as was his faithful presence in my own shadowed soul.
And yet I felt happier than I had done since this crushing blow had falle_pon me, for it was good to think that the world should know what we had done, so that at the worst our names should not perish with our bodies, but shoul_o down to posterity associated with the result of our labors.
It was an awesome thing to sleep in that ill-fated camp; and yet it was eve_ore unnerving to do so in the jungle. One or the other it must be. Prudence, on the one hand, warned me that I should remain on guard, but exhauste_ature, on the other, declared that I should do nothing of the kind. I climbe_p on to a limb of the great gingko tree, but there was no secure perch on it_ounded surface, and I should certainly have fallen off and broken my neck th_oment I began to doze. I got down, therefore, and pondered over what I shoul_o. Finally, I closed the door of the zareba, lit three separate fires in _riangle, and having eaten a hearty supper dropped off into a profound sleep, from which I had a strange and most welcome awakening. In the early morning, just as day was breaking, a hand was laid upon my arm, and starting up, wit_ll my nerves in a tingle and my hand feeling for a rifle, I gave a cry of jo_s in the cold gray light I saw Lord John Roxton kneeling beside me.
It was he—and yet it was not he. I had left him calm in his bearing, correc_n his person, prim in his dress. Now he was pale and wild-eyed, gasping as h_reathed like one who has run far and fast. His gaunt face was scratched an_loody, his clothes were hanging in rags, and his hat was gone. I stared i_mazement, but he gave me no chances for questions. He was grabbing at ou_tores all the time he spoke.
"Quick, young fellah! Quick!" he cried. "Every moment counts. Get the rifles, both of them. I have the other two. Now, all the cartridges you can gather.
Fill up your pockets. Now, some food. Half a dozen tins will do. That's al_ight! Don't wait to talk or think. Get a move on, or we are done!"
Still half-awake, and unable to imagine what it all might mean, I found mysel_urrying madly after him through the wood, a rifle under each arm and a pil_f various stores in my hands. He dodged in and out through the thickest o_he scrub until he came to a dense clump of brush-wood. Into this he rushed, regardless of thorns, and threw himself into the heart of it, pulling me dow_y his side.
"There!" he panted. "I think we are safe here. They'll make for the camp a_ure as fate. It will be their first idea. But this should puzzle 'em."
"What is it all?" I asked, when I had got my breath. "Where are th_rofessors? And who is it that is after us?"
"The ape-men," he cried. "My God, what brutes! Don't raise your voice, fo_hey have long ears—sharp eyes, too, but no power of scent, so far as I coul_udge, so I don't think they can sniff us out. Where have you been, youn_ellah? You were well out of it."
In a few sentences I whispered what I had done.
"Pretty bad," said he, when he had heard of the dinosaur and the pit. "I_sn't quite the place for a rest cure. What? But I had no idea what it_ossibilities were until those devils got hold of us. The man-eatin' Papuan_ad me once, but they are Chesterfields compared to this crowd."
"How did it happen?" I asked.
"It was in the early mornin'. Our learned friends were just stirrin'. Hadn'_ven begun to argue yet. Suddenly it rained apes. They came down as thick a_pples out of a tree. They had been assemblin' in the dark, I suppose, unti_hat great tree over our heads was heavy with them. I shot one of them throug_he belly, but before we knew where we were they had us spread-eagled on ou_acks. I call them apes, but they carried sticks and stones in their hands an_abbered talk to each other, and ended up by tyin' our hands with creepers, s_hey are ahead of any beast that I have seen in my wanderin's. Ape-men—that'_hat they are—Missin' Links, and I wish they had stayed missin'. They carrie_ff their wounded comrade—he was bleedin' like a pig—and then they sat aroun_s, and if ever I saw frozen murder it was in their faces. They were bi_ellows, as big as a man and a deal stronger. Curious glassy gray eyes the_ave, under red tufts, and they just sat and gloated and gloated. Challenge_s no chicken, but even he was cowed. He managed to struggle to his feet, an_elled out at them to have done with it and get it over. I think he had gone _it off his head at the suddenness of it, for he raged and cursed at them lik_ lunatic. If they had been a row of his favorite Pressmen he could not hav_langed them worse."
"Well, what did they do?" I was enthralled by the strange story which m_ompanion was whispering into my ear, while all the time his keen eyes wer_hooting in every direction and his hand grasping his cocked rifle.
"I thought it was the end of us, but instead of that it started them on a ne_ine. They all jabbered and chattered together. Then one of them stood ou_eside Challenger. You'll smile, young fellah, but 'pon my word they migh_ave been kinsmen. I couldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my ow_yes. This old ape-man—he was their chief—was a sort of red Challenger, wit_very one of our friend's beauty points, only just a trifle more so. He ha_he short body, the big shoulders, the round chest, no neck, a great rudd_rill of a beard, the tufted eyebrows, the 'What do you want, damn you!' loo_bout the eyes, and the whole catalogue. When the ape-man stood by Challenge_nd put his paw on his shoulder, the thing was complete. Summerlee was a bi_ysterical, and he laughed till he cried. The ape-men laughed too— or at leas_hey put up the devil of a cacklin'—and they set to work to drag us of_hrough the forest. They wouldn't touch the guns and things—thought the_angerous, I expect—but they carried away all our loose food. Summerlee and _ot some rough handlin' on the way—there's my skin and my clothes to prov_t—for they took us a bee-line through the brambles, and their own hides ar_ike leather. But Challenger was all right. Four of them carried him shoulde_igh, and he went like a Roman emperor. What's that?"
It was a strange clicking noise in the distance not unlike castanets.
"There they go!" said my companion, slipping cartridges into the second doubl_arrelled "Express." "Load them all up, young fellah my lad, for we're no_oing to be taken alive, and don't you think it! That's the row they make whe_hey are excited. By George! they'll have something to excite them if they pu_s up. The 'Last Stand of the Grays' won't be in it. 'With their rifle_rasped in their stiffened hands, mid a ring of the dead and dyin',' as som_athead sings. Can you hear them now?"
"Very far away."
"That little lot will do no good, but I expect their search parties are al_ver the wood. Well, I was telling you my tale of woe. They got us soon t_his town of theirs—about a thousand huts of branches and leaves in a grea_rove of trees near the edge of the cliff. It's three or four miles from here.
The filthy beasts fingered me all over, and I feel as if I should never b_lean again. They tied us up—the fellow who handled me could tie like _osun—and there we lay with our toes up, beneath a tree, while a great brut_tood guard over us with a club in his hand. When I say 'we' I mean Summerle_nd myself. Old Challenger was up a tree, eatin' pines and havin' the time o_is life. I'm bound to say that he managed to get some fruit to us, and wit_is own hands he loosened our bonds. If you'd seen him sitting up in that tre_ob-nobbin' with his twin brother—and singin' in that rollin' bass of his,
'Ring out, wild bells,' cause music of any kind seemed to put 'em in a goo_umor, you'd have smiled; but we weren't in much mood for laughin', as you ca_uess. They were inclined, within limits, to let him do what he liked, bu_hey drew the line pretty sharply at us. It was a mighty consolation to us al_o know that you were runnin' loose and had the archives in your keepin'.
"Well, now, young fellah, I'll tell you what will surprise you. You say yo_aw signs of men, and fires, traps, and the like. Well, we have seen th_atives themselves. Poor devils they were, down-faced little chaps, and ha_nough to make them so. It seems that the humans hold one side of thi_lateau—over yonder, where you saw the caves—and the ape-men hold this side, and there is bloody war between them all the time. That's the situation, s_ar as I could follow it. Well, yesterday the ape-men got hold of a dozen o_he humans and brought them in as prisoners. You never heard such a jabberin'
and shriekin' in your life. The men were little red fellows, and had bee_itten and clawed so that they could hardly walk. The ape-men put two of the_o death there and then—fairly pulled the arm off one of them—it was perfectl_eastly. Plucky little chaps they are, and hardly gave a squeak. But it turne_s absolutely sick. Summerlee fainted, and even Challenger had as much as h_ould stand. I think they have cleared, don't you?"
We listened intently, but nothing save the calling of the birds broke the dee_eace of the forest. Lord Roxton went on with his story.
"I Think you have had the escape of your life, young fellah my lad. It wa_atchin' those Indians that put you clean out of their heads, else they woul_ave been back to the camp for you as sure as fate and gathered you in. O_ourse, as you said, they have been watchin' us from the beginnin' out of tha_ree, and they knew perfectly well that we were one short. However, they coul_hink only of this new haul; so it was I, and not a bunch of apes, tha_ropped in on you in the morning. Well, we had a horrid business afterwards.
My God! what a nightmare the whole thing is! You remember the great bristle o_harp canes down below where we found the skeleton of the American? Well, tha_s just under ape-town, and that's the jumpin'-off place of their prisoners. _xpect there's heaps of skeletons there, if we looked for 'em. They have _ort of clear parade-ground on the top, and they make a proper ceremony abou_t. One by one the poor devils have to jump, and the game is to see whethe_hey are merely dashed to pieces or whether they get skewered on the canes.
They took us out to see it, and the whole tribe lined up on the edge. Four o_he Indians jumped, and the canes went through 'em like knittin' needle_hrough a pat of butter. No wonder we found that poor Yankee's skeleton wit_he canes growin' between his ribs. It was horrible—but it was doocedl_nterestin' too. We were all fascinated to see them take the dive, even whe_e thought it would be our turn next on the spring-board.
"Well, it wasn't. They kept six of the Indians up for to-day— that's how _nderstood it—but I fancy we were to be the star performers in the show.
Challenger might get off, but Summerlee and I were in the bill. Their languag_s more than half signs, and it was not hard to follow them. So I thought i_as time we made a break for it. I had been plottin' it out a bit, and had on_r two things clear in my mind. It was all on me, for Summerlee was useles_nd Challenger not much better. The only time they got together they go_langin' because they couldn't agree upon the scientific classification o_hese red-headed devils that had got hold of us. One said it was th_ryopithecus of Java, the other said it was pithecanthropus. Madness, I cal_t—Loonies, both. But, as I say, I had thought out one or two points that wer_elpful. One was that these brutes could not run as fast as a man in the open.
They have short, bandy legs, you see, and heavy bodies. Even Challenger coul_ive a few yards in a hundred to the best of them, and you or I would be _erfect Shrubb. Another point was that they knew nothin' about guns. I don'_elieve they ever understood how the fellow I shot came by his hurt. If w_ould get at our guns there was no sayin' what we could do.
"So I broke away early this mornin', gave my guard a kick in the tummy tha_aid him out, and sprinted for the camp. There I got you and the guns, an_ere we are."
"But the professors!" I cried, in consternation.
"Well, we must just go back and fetch 'em. I couldn't bring 'em with me.
Challenger was up the tree, and Summerlee was not fit for the effort. The onl_hance was to get the guns and try a rescue. Of course they may scupper the_t once in revenge. I don't think they would touch Challenger, but I wouldn'_nswer for Summerlee. But they would have had him in any case. Of that I a_ertain. So I haven't made matters any worse by boltin'. But we are hono_ound to go back and have them out or see it through with them. So you ca_ake up your soul, young fellah my lad, for it will be one way or the othe_efore evenin'."
I have tried to imitate here Lord Roxton's jerky talk, his short, stron_entences, the half-humorous, half-reckless tone that ran through it all. Bu_e was a born leader. As danger thickened his jaunty manner would increase, his speech become more racy, his cold eyes glitter into ardent life, and hi_on Quixote moustache bristle with joyous excitement. His love of danger, hi_ntense appreciation of the drama of an adventure—all the more intense fo_eing held tightly in—his consistent view that every peril in life is a for_f sport, a fierce game betwixt you and Fate, with Death as a forfeit, mad_im a wonderful companion at such hours. If it were not for our fears as t_he fate of our companions, it would have been a positive joy to throw mysel_ith such a man into such an affair. We were rising from our brushwood hiding- place when suddenly I felt his grip upon my arm.
"By George!" he whispered, "here they come!"
From where we lay we could look down a brown aisle, arched with green, forme_y the trunks and branches. Along this a party of the ape-men were passing.
They went in single file, with bent legs and rounded backs, their hand_ccasionally touching the ground, their heads turning to left and right a_hey trotted along. Their crouching gait took away from their height, but _hould put them at five feet or so, with long arms and enormous chests. Man_f them carried sticks, and at the distance they looked like a line of ver_airy and deformed human beings. For a moment I caught this clear glimpse o_hem. Then they were lost among the bushes.
"Not this time," said Lord John, who had caught up his rifle. "Our best chanc_s to lie quiet until they have given up the search. Then we shall see whethe_e can't get back to their town and hit 'em where it hurts most. Give 'em a_our and we'll march."
We filled in the time by opening one of our food tins and making sure of ou_reakfast. Lord Roxton had had nothing but some fruit since the morning befor_nd ate like a starving man. Then, at last, our pockets bulging wit_artridges and a rifle in each hand, we started off upon our mission o_escue. Before leaving it we carefully marked our little hiding-place amon_he brush-wood and its bearing to Fort Challenger, that we might find it agai_f we needed it. We slunk through the bushes in silence until we came to th_ery edge of the cliff, close to the old camp. There we halted, and Lord Joh_ave me some idea of his plans.
"So long as we are among the thick trees these swine are our masters, said he.
They can see us and we cannot see them. But in the open it is different. Ther_e can move faster than they. So we must stick to the open all we can. Th_dge of the plateau has fewer large trees than further inland. So that's ou_ine of advance. Go slowly, keep your eyes open and your rifle ready. Abov_ll, never let them get you prisoner while there is a cartridge left—that's m_ast word to you, young fellah."
When we reached the edge of the cliff I looked over and saw our good old blac_ambo sitting smoking on a rock below us. I would have given a great deal t_ave hailed him and told him how we were placed, but it was too dangerous, lest we should be heard. The woods seemed to be full of the ape-men; again an_gain we heard their curious clicking chatter. At such times we plunged int_he nearest clump of bushes and lay still until the sound had passed away. Ou_dvance, therefore, was very slow, and two hours at least must have passe_efore I saw by Lord John's cautious movements that we must be close to ou_estination. He motioned to me to lie still, and he crawled forward himself.
In a minute he was back again, his face quivering with eagerness.
"Come!" said he. "Come quick! I hope to the Lord we are not too late already!
I found myself shaking with nervous excitement as I scrambled forward and la_own beside him, looking out through the bushes at a clearing which stretche_efore us.
It was a sight which I shall never forget until my dying day—so weird, s_mpossible, that I do not know how I am to make you realize it, or how in _ew years I shall bring myself to believe in it if I live to sit once more o_ lounge in the Savage Club and look out on the drab solidity of th_mbankment. I know that it will seem then to be some wild nightmare, som_elirium of fever. Yet I will set it down now, while it is still fresh in m_emory, and one at least, the man who lay in the damp grasses by my side, wil_now if I have lied.
A wide, open space lay before us—some hundreds of yards across—all green tur_nd low bracken growing to the very edge of the cliff. Round this clearin_here was a semi-circle of trees with curious huts built of foliage piled on_bove the other among the branches. A rookery, with every nest a little house, would best convey the idea. The openings of these huts and the branches of th_rees were thronged with a dense mob of ape-people, whom from their size _ook to be the females and infants of the tribe. They formed the background o_he picture, and were all looking out with eager interest at the same scen_hich fascinated and bewildered us.
In the open, and near the edge of the cliff, there had assembled a crowd o_ome hundred of these shaggy, red-haired creatures, many of them of immens_ize, and all of them horrible to look upon. There was a certain disciplin_mong them, for none of them attempted to break the line which had bee_ormed. In front there stood a small group of Indians—little, clean-limbed, red fellows, whose skins glowed like polished bronze in the strong sunlight. _all, thin white man was standing beside them, his head bowed, his arm_olded, his whole attitude expressive of his horror and dejection. There wa_o mistaking the angular form of Professor Summerlee.
In front of and around this dejected group of prisoners were several ape-men, who watched them closely and made all escape impossible. Then, right out fro_ll the others and close to the edge of the cliff, were two figures, s_trange, and under other circumstances so ludicrous, that they absorbed m_ttention. The one was our comrade, Professor Challenger. The remains of hi_oat still hung in strips from his shoulders, but his shirt had been all tor_ut, and his great beard merged itself in the black tangle which covered hi_ighty chest. He had lost his hat, and his hair, which had grown long in ou_anderings, was flying in wild disorder. A single day seemed to have change_im from the highest product of modern civilization to the most desperat_avage in South America. Beside him stood his master, the king of the ape-men.
In all things he was, as Lord John had said, the very image of our Professor, save that his coloring was red instead of black. The same short, broad figure, the same heavy shoulders, the same forward hang of the arms, the sam_ristling beard merging itself in the hairy chest. Only above the eyebrows, where the sloping forehead and low, curved skull of the ape-man were in shar_ontrast to the broad brow and magnificent cranium of the European, could on_ee any marked difference. At every other point the king was an absurd parod_f the Professor.
All this, which takes me so long to describe, impressed itself upon me in _ew seconds. Then we had very different things to think of, for an activ_rama was in progress. Two of the ape-men had seized one of the Indians out o_he group and dragged him forward to the edge of the cliff. The king raise_is hand as a signal. They caught the man by his leg and arm, and swung hi_hree times backwards and forwards with tremendous violence. Then, with _rightful heave they shot the poor wretch over the precipice. With such forc_id they throw him that he curved high in the air before beginning to drop. A_e vanished from sight, the whole assembly, except the guards, rushed forwar_o the edge of the precipice, and there was a long pause of absolute silence, broken by a mad yell of delight. They sprang about, tossing their long, hair_rms in the air and howling with exultation. Then they fell back from th_dge, formed themselves again into line, and waited for the next victim.
This time it was Summerlee. Two of his guards caught him by the wrists an_ulled him brutally to the front. His thin figure and long limbs struggled an_luttered like a chicken being dragged from a coop. Challenger had turned t_he king and waved his hands frantically before him. He was begging, pleading, imploring for his comrade's life. The ape-man pushed him roughly aside an_hook his head. It was the last conscious movement he was to make upon earth.
Lord John's rifle cracked, and the king sank down, a tangled red sprawlin_hing, upon the ground.
"Shoot into the thick of them! Shoot! sonny, shoot!" cried my companion.
There are strange red depths in the soul of the most commonplace man. I a_enderhearted by nature, and have found my eyes moist many a time over th_cream of a wounded hare. Yet the blood lust was on me now. I found myself o_y feet emptying one magazine, then the other, clicking open the breech to re- load, snapping it to again, while cheering and yelling with pure ferocity an_oy of slaughter as I did so. With our four guns the two of us made a horribl_avoc. Both the guards who held Summerlee were down, and he was staggerin_bout like a drunken man in his amazement, unable to realize that he was _ree man. The dense mob of ape-men ran about in bewilderment, marveling whenc_his storm of death was coming or what it might mean. They waved, gesticulated, screamed, and tripped up over those who had fallen. Then, with _udden impulse, they all rushed in a howling crowd to the trees for shelter, leaving the ground behind them spotted with their stricken comrades. Th_risoners were left for the moment standing alone in the middle of th_learing.
Challenger's quick brain had grasped the situation. He seized the bewildere_ummerlee by the arm, and they both ran towards us. Two of their guard_ounded after them and fell to two bullets from Lord John. We ran forward int_he open to meet our friends, and pressed a loaded rifle into the hands o_ach. But Summerlee was at the end of his strength. He could hardly totter.
Already the ape-men were recovering from their panic. They were coming throug_he brushwood and threatening to cut us off. Challenger and I ran Summerle_long, one at each of his elbows, while Lord John covered our retreat, firin_gain and again as savage heads snarled at us out of the bushes. For a mile o_ore the chattering brutes were at our very heels. Then the pursuit slackened, for they learned our power and would no longer face that unerring rifle. Whe_e had at last reached the camp, we looked back and found ourselves alone.
So it seemed to us; and yet we were mistaken. We had hardly closed th_hornbush door of our zareba, clasped each other's hands, and thrown ourselve_anting upon the ground beside our spring, when we heard a patter of feet an_hen a gentle, plaintive crying from outside our entrance. Lord Roxton rushe_orward, rifle in hand, and threw it open. There, prostrate upon their faces, lay the little red figures of the four surviving Indians, trembling with fea_f us and yet imploring our protection. With an expressive sweep of his hand_ne of them pointed to the woods around them, and indicated that they wer_ull of danger. Then, darting forward, he threw his arms round Lord John'_egs, and rested his face upon them.
"By George!" cried our peer, pulling at his moustache in great perplexity, "_ay—what the deuce are we to do with these people? Get up, little chappie, an_ake your face off my boots."
Summerlee was sitting up and stuffing some tobacco into his old briar.
"We've got to see them safe," said he. "You've pulled us all out of the jaw_f death. My word! it was a good bit of work!"
"Admirable!" cried Challenger. "Admirable! Not only we as individuals, bu_uropean science collectively, owe you a deep debt of gratitude for what yo_ave done. I do not hesitate to say that the disappearance of Professo_ummerlee and myself would have left an appreciable gap in modern zoologica_istory. Our young friend here and you have done most excellently well."
He beamed at us with the old paternal smile, but European science would hav_een somewhat amazed could they have seen their chosen child, the hope of th_uture, with his tangled, unkempt head, his bare chest, and his tattere_lothes. He had one of the meat-tins between his knees, and sat with a larg_iece of cold Australian mutton between his fingers. The Indian looked up a_im, and then, with a little yelp, cringed to the ground and clung to Lor_ohn's leg.
"Don't you be scared, my bonnie boy," said Lord John, patting the matted hea_n front of him. "He can't stick your appearance, Challenger; and, by George!
I don't wonder. All right, little chap, he's only a human, just the same a_he rest of us."
"Really, sir!" cried the Professor.
"Well, it's lucky for you, Challenger, that you are a little out of th_rdinary. If you hadn't been so like the king——"
"Upon my word, Lord John, you allow yourself great latitude."
"Well, it's a fact."
"I beg, sir, that you will change the subject. Your remarks are irrelevant an_nintelligible. The question before us is what are we to do with thes_ndians? The obvious thing is to escort them home, if we knew where their hom_as."
"There is no difficulty about that," said I. "They live in the caves on th_ther side of the central lake."
"Our young friend here knows where they live. I gather that it is som_istance."
"A good twenty miles," said I.
Summerlee gave a groan.
"I, for one, could never get there. Surely I hear those brutes still howlin_pon our track."
As he spoke, from the dark recesses of the woods we heard far away th_abbering cry of the ape-men. The Indians once more set up a feeble wail o_ear.
"We must move, and move quick!" said Lord John. "You help Summerlee, youn_ellah. These Indians will carry stores. Now, then, come along before they ca_ee us."
In less than half-an-hour we had reached our brushwood retreat and conceale_urselves. All day we heard the excited calling of the ape-men in th_irection of our old camp, but none of them came our way, and the tire_ugitives, red and white, had a long, deep sleep. I was dozing myself in th_vening when someone plucked my sleeve, and I found Challenger kneeling besid_e.
"You keep a diary of these events, and you expect eventually to publish it, Mr. Malone," said he, with solemnity.
"I am only here as a Press reporter," I answered.
"Exactly. You may have heard some rather fatuous remarks of Lord John Roxton'_hich seemed to imply that there was some— some resemblance——"
"Yes, I heard them."
"I need not say that any publicity given to such an idea—any levity in you_arrative of what occurred—would be exceedingly offensive to me."
"I will keep well within the truth."
"Lord John's observations are frequently exceedingly fanciful, and he i_apable of attributing the most absurd reasons to the respect which is alway_hown by the most undeveloped races to dignity and character. You follow m_eaning?"
"I leave the matter to your discretion." Then, after a long pause, he added:
"The king of the ape-men was really a creature of great distinction—a mos_emarkably handsome and intelligent personality. Did it not strike you?"
"A most remarkable creature," said I.
And the Professor, much eased in his mind, settled down to his slumber onc_ore.